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Critical Consensus: L.A. Noire

Rockstar's pithy detective thriller hits critical high-notes

In a presentation at the Nordic Game Festival in Malmo last week, EEDAR's Jesse Divnich spoke about the power of game brands - how a consistent level of quality can improve earning and marketing power for a studio and the importance of having identifiable brand recognition.

His prime example for how to do that well was Rockstar. A developer with a solid IP catalogue and a regular giant on the books in the form of GTA, Rockstar never has to hurry, and rarely, if ever, feels the lash of creative control from its publisher, Take-Two. Consistent delivery is the studio's keyword.

The latest release, LA Noire, is a different prospect.

It's no reboot, but a brand new IP. There's no opportunity for Rockstar's hallmark open world chaos, no chance for players to run amok in a carefully crafted sandbox to see what happens when large ordnance is introduced into the artificial microcosms the developer crafts so well. Instead, what the game presents is a tightly scripted, controlled and relatively sedately paced exposition of plot and character, a hard-boiled crime narrative which engages players as actors, rather than antagonists.

In short, it's something of a departure, and by extension, something of a risk. Get this wrong, and that brand strength which Divnich spoke about, born of consistency, is weakened.

Thankfully, for both Rockstar and the player, Team Bondi seems to have largely struck a chord with LA Noire, producing a challenging, original and engaging journey through post-war LA which pushes new boundaries in technology, writing and pacing.

Currently the Metacritic score for L.A. Noire sits just above 90 per cent (91 for Xbox 360 and 92 on PS3), with a tightly packed bunch of scores which only once dips below that magic, all-green band of 80+. How those marks translate into sales remains to be seen, but for now, Rockstar's outlook continues to be rosy.

Some of the most fulsome praise for Noire comes from Destructoid, a site which is often unswayed and unimpressed by expensive marketing campaigns, unafraid to skew the ratings with stern opinion. Editor Jim Sterling's 9/10 score is summarised neatly in his opening précis: "L.A. Noire has been in development for at least seven years. Not everything's worth waiting for. Some things are."

With that stall firmly set out, Stirling is quick to point out, as are many others, that this is not GTA: Opposing Force. There may be cover mechanics for shooting, a driving model and a well-mapped American city, but the comparisons end there. What Noire has more in common with, say Stirling and many of his peers, are the point and click adventures of PC gaming's formative years. What's important here is not really the shooting, driving or even free-roaming, but the solid police work of clue-spotting and witness interrogation.

I can respect the limits the game places on your open-world freedom; these limits are there in service of the story and maintaining your immersion within it.

Brad Shoemaker, Giant Bomb

IGN is in agreement in its 8.5 review, postulating that "L.A. Noire's not like most's a slow-paced, meditative experience". That position is also applauded by Giant Bomb's Brad Shoemaker, in a full-marks review which explains that:

"It would be entirely out of character and context for you to blow up a block full of cars or wantonly go on a shooting spree in the middle of MacArthur Park, and in fact, you can't even draw your gun unless you're placed in a situation where you reasonably need to use it.

"Repeat: no random acts of violence allowed. I can respect the limits the game places on your open-world freedom; these limits are there in service of the story and maintaining your immersion within it."

So, gameplay-wise, Noire certainly presents a twist on what has become the open-world norm, but it's largely in the technical achievements that Rockstar Bondi really shines.

A large part of the all-important witness interrogation is facilitated, excellently, by LA Noire's phenomenal facial capture work, which Eurogamer's Oli Welsh describes as "electrifying at best, a bit hammy at worst, but always an exciting novelty to watch" in an 8/10 review.

It delivers, says IGN, "pure performances from a talented group of actors. Every wrinkle, twitch, downward glance, grimace, and hard swallow is from an actor playing a part, not an animator manipulating things from behind the scenes. It's a striking, sometimes unnerving effect certain to help push video games closer to true cinematic experiences."

Destructoid is equally impressed by the game's "utterly astounding facial animations", which Stirling says are fundamental to the game's success.

"It's a joy to interview suspects and watch them talk in such a realistic fashion, using their movements to inform your own decisions. Without the animation, the game simply would not work, but I'm thrilled to report that it works beautifully."

But that immersion suffers occasionally, perhaps a casualty of so much real-world resonance elsewhere.

"Each time I start getting immersed in the world, I'm reminded 'you're playing a game' with unnecessary text popping up on the screen or a score tallying my lie-detecting ability," says IGN.

The side quests also attract some criticism, with Welsh describing the 'Street Crime' mechanic as "chaff", relying as it does on action heavy aspects like the "bog standard" cover shooting rather than the strong investigative features. However, both Destructoid and Giant Bomb are more lenient, despite "a few dodgy control issues", reserving special praise for the car chases and foot pursuits.

Rockstar will undoubtedly be disappointed with the scores which fall below 9, but there are plenty of full-mark reviews, too. Alongside Giant Bomb in offering 100 per cent are 1-UP, Total Video Games and The Guardian.

If you're looking for a slightly more cerebral blockbuster with cinematic aspects which could spawn a wealth of imitators, then L.A. Noire seems like a prime suspect. For a studio so closely associated with mayhem and firepower, it's certainly a gamble, but for a new IP in a tough market, it's a laudably bold and accomplished one.

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